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Review by MrBrown
1½ stars out of 4
After the colossal box office disappointments The Rocketeer and The
Shadow, one would think that Hollywood would have given up on bringing
fairly obscure comic book characters to the big screen. Alas, that isn't
the case, but one wishes that were after seeing The Phantom, a silly,
unexciting film treatment of Lee Falk's comic book hero of the same name.
Billy Zane plays Kit Walker, the latest in his family to assume the
mantle of the Phantom--purple-clad defender of the jungle's riches against
pirates, looters, and greed in general. The latter is personified in one
Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a wealthy business tycoon of some sort who is
determined to find three sacred skulls which, when joined, are a source of
immense supernatural power. Needless to say, it's up to "the ghost who
walks" to prevent Drax from gaining possession of the three skulls.
Simon Wincer's (Lonesome Dove, Free Willy) film does move very
quickly and efficiently; the film opens with a concise introduction to the
legend of the Phantom that lasts little more than a minute, and he keeps the
action moving accordingly. However, the film, for all its effects and
stunts, is strangely unexciting and devoid of fun. The action set pieces,
especially the fights, look and feel scripted and staged, lacking any
spontaneous energy that would make it the slightest bit convincing; it's
hard to have fun with comic book antics that are so forced and calculated.
Wincer also fails to create a distinct tone; at times he appears to be going
for a tongue-in-cheek comic book that's in on the joke and aware of its
ridiculous excesses (which would have been the best choice), but at other
times he plays it too straight, which doesn't suit a film about a guy
wearing purple tights who rides on horseback in the jungle in the 1930s.
But it's not as if Wincer had a great script to work with. Jeffrey Boam's
script is little more than Batman meets Indiana Jones, or, more
appropriately, The Shadow meets Congo--by-the-numbers, predictable action
scenes involving a mysterious costumed hero in the wilds interspersed with
city scenes set against Art Deco architecture and vintage automobiles.
The performances also reflect this unevenness of tone. A
dark-haired Kristy Swanson, as the love interest, Diana Palmer, goes the
straight route and comes off stiff and out of place. On the other side of
the coin is Williams, who camps it up as Drax in an apparent attempt to
reach the entertaining, manic heights a la Alan Rickman in Robin Hood:
Prince of Thieves. Problem is, though, while Rickman chewed the scenery, he
still came off as a menacing, formidable villain; Williams just comes off as
a laughable caricature. Early on, Catherine Zeta Jones's Sala has the
makings of a fun femme fatale along the lines of GoldenEye's Xenia Onatopp,
but her character makes an inexplicable, abrupt change for the worse late in
the game. The only one who achieves the appropriate balance is Zane, who
never takes himself too seriously (how could he, given that ridiculous
outfit?) while still investing a certain amount of serious conviction to the
role. Zane has an appealing, self-effacing sense of humor; he is as
credible firing guns as he is tossing off one-liners. If only screenwriter
Boam gave him more opportunities to do the latter.
One thing that did strike me about The Phantom were its connections
to--yes--Showgirls. Al Ruscio, who played the owner of the Stardust in that
disastrous film, turns up as the corrupt New York police commissioner, and
Showgirls costume designer Marlene Stewart came up with the duds for this
picture; also, the end credits are printed in the same typeface as those of
Showgirls. But that's where the connections end, for the blah The Phantom
is not nearly as much fun as that awful, awfully entertaining howlfest.